Throwback Thursday: Vintage Training Material

Aug 14

A good friend of mine and former co-worker hit me up today with a little surprise.  He was cleaning out his office as he prepares to transition to a new job, and came across this:

2005 was an excellent vintage.


What?  A crappy looking plastic folder with some documents inside in sloppy handwriting?  No no, my friends. What you’re seeing here is Vintage Cory, the Ark of the Contractor.  The Holy Grail of training materials, if you will. See, although I’ve been involved in training for as long as I’ve been working, it wasn’t until I went to Iraq 10 incredibly short years ago that I found myself gravitating towards training as a full-time profession.

I arrived in Iraq in July 2004 knowing only one thing.  I was headed to some place called Al Asad in the middle of freakin’ nowhere, and I was going to be doing “something” with H-S-and-E.  (Health, Safety & Environmental)  I still remember my call with the recruiter the previous month.

“Do you know anything about HSE?”

“What’s HSE?”

“Hmm.  I’m not sure, I don’t have the definition in front of me.  It has something to do with safety.”

Prior to this point I had been a project coordinator for wireless telecom companies, an executive assistant for a scaffolding company, a waitress and a bartender.  Not necessarily in that order.  Safety?  I had no idea what she even meant by that term in this context.

“Um.  No, I’ve never worked in safety.”

That last admission came out painfully.  I had to be honest, of course.  But you see…I’d spent a good 5 months working up the nerve to apply for jobs in Iraq.  Now that I had this fish on the line I was really afraid it would get away from me.  And then what?  More paycheck-to-paycheck existence?  No thanks.

I heard her shuffling through papers and muttering to herself.

“Well…do you know anything about keeping records?”

“Yeah, files are easy.”

“What about Excel?  Do you know Excel?”

“Oh DEFINITELY.  I’m a total ace on Excel.”

I said that without a hint of hesitation.  Because it was true.  Back when I was tracking over a thousand active construction projects through multiple layers of regulation and pre-construction approvals, crossing over 50 markets in 12 states…yeah.  As a matter of survival, I learned Excel alright.

Now we were on a roll.  She ticked off a few other software applications and I said “Yes, yes, yes and damn right,” to all of them.  In the end she concluded that I didn’t need to know what HSE was; as long as I could do all the tasks required the rest would fall into place.  I was so relieved that I hadn’t kicked myself out of the running that I didn’t even consider whether or not she was right.

Just over a month after that conversation, after a rigorous on-boarding process and some truly insane travel (another conversation for another time), I showed up at Al Asad.  It was a bright, sunny, clear day.  Oh and HOT.  Also hot.  The temperature the day I landed was a balmy 144°F (62°C).

I stepped off the C130 hauling all my gear and was ushered into a suffocating tent along with all the other passengers by a brusque Marine.  There was one other company employee (also a new hire) with me.  Everyone else was a Marine.  I listened intently, barely comprehending the instructions rapidly firing out of the Marine’s mouth.  The rest of the Marines looked bored.  My other civilian travel companion was just plain tired.  But me?  It was right in that moment that the sheer terror washed over me like a icy wave.

I have no idea what I’m doing.

Holy cow what have I done?  I allowed some recruiter to talk me into doing a job I know nothing about in a place that is way crazy surrounded by people I don’t understand and #$#%^#%# it is HOT HERE.  They went through all this work to get me here, they are going to expect that I know what I’m doing!!

A short time later the representatives from our company met us at the flight line with a smile and a cold bottle of water (the best water I have ever tasted in my life…bar none).  They drove us across base to our mancamp, got us situated in a tent, and took us to meet our new bosses.

Ahhh....home sweet tent.

Ahhh….home sweet tent.










So this is the first thing that was really weird about contracting.  In a normal job, you meet your boss before you ever get an offer let alone a day of pay (they started paying us the day we flew out of Houston).  Yet here I was, 7,000 miles from home, half delirious from jet-lag and early-stage heat exhaustion, dusty, sweaty and certainly looking like I’d seen the worst of every one of those 7,000 miles…meeting my new boss for the first time, who had been tracking my impending arrival for weeks on…


I put on my best smile and shook his hand and vowed to learn anything and everything about Safety so I could do well and help the team.

My training began pretty much immediately.  I was staged in an office the size of a cubicle housing 3 desks shared by 5 people.  I was number 6.  I set up next to the other Admin, Charissa, who would quickly become one of my dearest friends.  For the next 3 days, working 12 hours a day, she stuffed every acronym, regulation, form, process and report down my gullet.  I took furious notes and swore I’d learn it all as fast as I could.

Two things I had to get used to in my new job. Routine explosions (this one from a controlled detonation)…











...and sandstorms.

…and sandstorms.










In the weeks that followed I eventually got a new seating assignment and slightly more elbow room (though not much).  I was thrown right into the lake of fire with not much choice but to figure out how to put out the flames and swim at the same time.  And I asked questions.  LOTS of questions.  I was so fortunate to be surrounded by the finest Safety professionals I could have possibly known.  Greg Bolton, Jay Delahoussaye, Carl Finto, David Harder, Charissa Ramey, Phillip Daigle, Dennis Burdick…just to name a few.  I would go on contracting for another 10 years and never met another HSE pro like the guys and gals with whom I shared my first days in Al Asad.

We eventually got to upgrade our office space to the Trailer Suites.

We eventually got to upgrade our office space to the Trailer Suites.











The more questions I asked, the more my knowledge base grew.  And with time I realized the recruiter was right.  The learning curve was steep, but this job was a piece of cake.

Flash forward about 5 months, January 2005.  We’d hired a great deal many more people and they’d all been thrown to the wolves just as I had.  I was quite frankly getting tired of correcting the same mistakes on every report.  So it was decided that we should have a training class.  And there it began.

I threw together this notebook full of examples of good and bad reports.  I referenced all the appropriate regulations and tied it back to company and project requirements.  I even made a PowerPoint.  And I asked one of our HSE coordinators, who had a background in accident investigations for the British government, to “throw together a little piece on doing incident investigations.”  His module on investigations, my modules on requirements and reporting became the first Safety Coordinator’s class.  It was also a HAZMAT Coordinator’s class, and a Medic’s class (all fell under the purview of HSE).

It was rough around the edges, to say the least.  That silly folder with my handwriting still plainly on the cover?  We were running out of toner for our printer and had to conserve what we did print.  Those plastic folders?  All they had in stock at the warehouse, I got the last 15 they had on the shelf.  I didn’t think I was creating a tool for the ages or launching what would eventually become my career.  I was just trying to get the job done with the limited time and resources we had.

A few months in, I began to understand the need for Safety training.

A few months in, I began to understand the need for Safety training.











As months wore on I refined the material.  I made it look a little snazzier.  I incorporated more exercises and added detail.  Our Area Manager required all new hire coordinators, medics–and, of course, admins.  Soon I was traveling to other bases to deliver the class.   That course would eventually be adopted by the Theater Training Center at Project Headquarters, with me as the Subject Matter Expert.


In roughly a year’s time, I went from not even knowing what “Safety” meant as a profession, let alone having the first idea what OSHA stood for, to designing and delivering training as an expert in my niche of the field.  How in the world?

My work with the TTC eventually led to a full time training position at project headquarters in Baghdad…and I fell in love with training and development.  There again I was fortunate to be mentored by great learning professionals like my curriculum design supervisor, Mr. Leigh Tracey, my Deputy Director of Training and highly seasoned training professional, Paul Wilkinson, and our formidable, adorable Director, Dorothy Klasse…retired full bird colonel and former West Point instructor (yes, THAT West Point).

I would eventually look back on those materials I cobbled together in my dusty trailer in Al Asad with a touch of disdain…disappointed by how unpolished it seemed.  But it met a need.  And rough around the edges though it may have been, the material took on a life of its own.  Now I look back on this picture with a mixture of amusement and pride.  I am immensely proud of the work we did there, and proud of my contribution to the effort.  I’m prouder still of the training professional I am today.  And that is where it really began for me.

Greg asked me for an updated copy, complaining that “This thing is 9 years old now.”

I told him I would be happy to produce some updated materials for him…for a modest fee.  :)

Greg determined this chair in our office constituted a safety hazard, and mitigated the risk accordingly.

Greg determined this chair in our office constituted a safety hazard, and mitigated the risk accordingly.











Greg always took Safety very seriously.

Greg always took Safety very seriously.













Problem. Solved.

Problem. Solved.










In spite of all the craziness, the frenetic pace, the frustrations and the obstacles...moments like this are what I remember most from my time there.

In spite of all the craziness, the frenetic pace, the frustrations and the obstacles…moments like this are what I remember most from my time there.

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